Abstract political theory creates frameworks without reference to material conditions or historical events. Like many Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke approached property acquisition as an ideal thought experiment. The ahistorical perspective allows a theorist to ignore the history of unjust acquisition. Instead, a Lockean philosopher can defend situational injustice by showing alignment with the ideal theory. Locke himself argues that ownership claims arise from the investment of labor, so one must work to own property and profit by it. Anyone lacking property must have not done the work and should invest their effort if they want to improve their situation. With this framework a Lockean does not need to address past injustices that prevented equal opportunity for acquisition.

Acquisition of private property needed justifications during Locke’s time as traditional commons arrangements transitioned into private ownership. Locke’s theory justifies the enclosure of common lands because private ownership improves the land over its natural state, and anyone else could do the same by enclosing a different parcel. In practice, there are distinct class differences in who was entitled to enclose the commons and who would be forced to abide by those enclosures. New property claims dissolved traditional usage rights, removing claim to the land from the very people who worked it. While these seizures should be condemned in Locke’s theory, an abstract political theory conceals these injustices. The framework projects from an idealized original state to the current situation. The placement of the present moment becomes a rhetorical act intended to connect “now” with the idealized “state of nature” and disregard the permutations in between.

Supporters of regressive political economies benefit from convincing the working class that all positions in society have been earned fairly. The poor deserve poverty, not aid, and the wealthy are owed influence, not stewardship. Scholars are never entirely isolated from political interest, as evidenced by privately funded research originated solely to vindicate a politically important narrative. If the community of scholars widely endorses a perspective that aligns with politically interested narratives, we have reason to challenge it with historically grounded scholarship. Abstraction cannot absolve moral wrongs against actual people.